Where have Washington’s Pakistan Experts Gone?

Something is missing in Washington, and I’m not referring to bipartisanship. I’m talking about Pakistan expertise.

Last year, Shuja Nawaz, head of The Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, lamented the exodus of Pakistan experts from Washington policy-making jobs. Yet this only represents the tip of the iceberg.
Scan the speaker rosters of the city’s think-tank symposia, study the bylines of policy briefs and commentaries, and scrutinise the talking heads on DC talk shows.

What do you see? The same set of names, drawn from Washington’s small group of esteemed Pakistan-watchers.

Numbering about two dozen, they include diplomats (Teresita Schaffer), scholars (Stephen Cohen, Christine Fair), and those who have engaged both public service and academia (Daniel Markey, Lisa Curtis, Marvin Weinbaum). In more recent years, this fraternity has also taken in transplanted Pakistanis (such as Nawaz).
Yet beyond this venerable group, there is little else. In a city that constantly refers to the immense strategic significance of Pakistan, this deficit of expertise is striking — yet also unsurprising.

Americans, after all, are notoriously uninformed about foreign affairs — and even about a nation that their government insists is so important (my countrymen have been known to confuse Pakistanis with Palestinians).

Also, US public opinion toward Pakistan is strongly negative — a February 2012 Gallup poll found that only 15 per cent of Americans regard Pakistan positively (in the last 10-plus years, only once has this figure exceeded 30 per cent). Such a climate does not exactly encourage Americans to gravitate toward Pakistan.

Even those who wish to become students of Pakistan face obstacles. This is because US higher education doesn’t emphasise Pakistan like it does other nations and regions. A range of universities — the University of Washington, University of California at Berkeley, and SAIS/Johns Hopkins, to name just a few — boast programs specifically dedicated to the study of China. Yet Pakistan Studies programs are rare.
By no means does this signify a paucity of Pakistan-oriented scholarship in the United States — consider, just for starters, Anita Weiss’s work on gender, Sarah Halvorson’s on geography, and Ayesha Jalal’s on history — yet it does suggest that America’s higher education system refuses to place a high premium on Pakistan.

Little wonder many recent graduates flock to careers as China hands or Middle East specialists — yet few vow to become part of the next generation of Pakistan experts. My own experience is illustrative; during the early months of the Iraq War, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in Middle East studies. I entered the South Asia field only later on, through a combination of luck and happenstance (and I’m glad I did).

Wait, you may say: What about that cottage industry of Pakistan experts that has sprouted in Washington in recent years? “Only in DC can you be a Pakistan expert without ever visiting the region,” grumbled Washington-based journalist Huma Imtiaz last year. “Yet your average Pakistan expert, fresh out of college or mid-career, claims to possess a deep understanding of how Pakistan’s politics, military, and society work.”
Alas, this is not a cottage industry of Pakistan specialists — it is one of Af-Pak experts. In Washington, Pakistan is inextricably tied to Afghanistan and to the war that the US is embroiled in there. Little wonder two of the most popular (and best) information portals consulted by Washington Pakistan-watchers — the AfPak Channel and Colin Cookman’s Pakistan/Afghanistan/Terrorism News brief — focus on Afghanistan as much as (if not more than) Pakistan.

Predictably, those representing this new wave of “Pakistan experts” are mostly security specialists fixated on the Afghanistan War; few nurture an abiding interest in Pakistan’s public health woes, its burgeoning IT sector, or Lollywood; they are more concerned about the threat posed to US forces in Afghanistan by militant sanctuaries in North Waziristan, and about Islamabad’s role in the Afghan endgame.

With Washington’s Pakistan-followers effectively proxies for Afghanistan War- watchers, what will happen in 2014, when US combat forces have left Afghanistan? Will a reduced US military footprint in Afghanistan spell an end to Pakistan-heavy policy papers, panels and punditry in Washington? Will there still be ample experts on hand to contemplate Pakistan’s natural resource shortages, economic malaise, and education crisis — long-term challenges having little to do with Afghanistan?

Here is where the narrative grows less gloomy. Washington boasts a promising organisation, the Young Professionals Working Group on Pakistan, which comprises aspiring analysts of the country. Some of the capital’s most insightful Pakistan analysis in recent years has come from new and younger faces — Shamila Chaudhary, Moeed Yusuf, Joshua White, Stephen Tankel.

Further afield, a cultural engagement program, Caravanserai, has barnstormed across America, hosting performances and film screenings by Pakistani artists — and hoping to pique schoolchildren’s interest in Pakistan.

Bipartisanship may be a lost cause in Washington. Yet there is still hope for strengthening and expanding the city’s ranks of Pakistan experts.

Michael Kugelman is the program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He can be reached at michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org and on Twitter @michaelkugelman

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